A Freak Accident Paralyzed My Best Friend. Now She’s Using Art To Get Her Life Back.

My friend Natalie lost control of her body following a spinal cord injury this summer. Six months later, we spoke about her recovery, and why she’s documenting it.

Photographer Natalie de Segonzac
December 21, 2016

I have known Natalie de Segonzac for 15 years. We met in 6th grade when she joined my Upper West Side N.Y.C school the year after 9/11. By junior year of high school, we spent most of our spare time together, in the art studio or prancing around the Village. In February of 2015, I moved into a Brooklyn apartment down the block from Natalie’s; in such close proximity, spending every available moment together felt natural. As a pair, we began to work on bettering ourselves — as artists, as women, and as living-breathing humans in the world. There were a few themes we kept coming back to in our conversations: the weirdness of having a body; how strange it is to have a mind that you sometimes can’t control; and the perceived otherness of the female being.

All of these themes are present in Natalie’s work, which takes many forms. She sculpts, photographs, films, paints, prints, welds, molds, stitches — the list goes on. Her most visceral work always features her own body. For her senior project at the School of Visual Arts, where Natalie studied sculpture and photography, she built a steel cube and photographed herself within it, stretching her form in dozens of directions. A video she made last year finds her wrapping her body in wire until encased. In another, she crochets a rope cocoon. One work-in-progress includes a vest made of fabric “noodles” filled with rice — wearing it mimics the physical pressure of an anxiety attack, while also hugging your body, an antidote to its own heaviness. In an attempt to see herself beyond the fog of consciousness, Natalie is both subject and material, both artist and tool. Engaging with her work evokes the feeling of being distant from your own flesh and, at the same time, inextricably tied to it; a reminder you exist inside a container you didn’t choose. When we were alone, we talked about this paradoxical feeling all the time.

It felt like a cruel joke when Natalie broke her neck and injured her spinal cord this June. She was with friends on Fire Island, a beach town off the coast of Long Island, and had just taken her first ocean dive of the summer. The water was unexpectedly shallow, and she came up floating, face down. A friend dragged her out of the ocean, and she was helicoptered to the hospital in Stony Brook, Long Island. The next morning I learned that she was paralyzed from the neck down. When I visited Natalie at the hospital for the first time, after she’d been in the ICU for two weeks, she couldn’t move anything but her mouth. She said exactly two things to me: “I have two titanium vertebrae,” and “I just want to make shit.” And that’s exactly the hardheaded attitude that’s made her recovery progress so steady. The doctors didn’t even think she was ever going to move again, but when I visited her a week later, she was wiggling her left toes.

Right now Natalie’s in Baltimore at an outpatient program, where she goes to the gym every day and gets zapped with electrodes to stimulate her nerves. She’s also working. It’s always been important for Natalie to record her emotional and physical trajectories in order to understand herself — now, that process is more crucial than ever. As soon as she was able to talk, she began documenting herself through a series of photographs; some she took herself and others she directed with her intrinsic attention to detail. The photographs are not only evidence of Natalie’s recovery, but of her vulnerability and of her strength, which she will tell you are one and the same. In our interview below, she tells her story.

Tell me about 2016.

This year started off really good. In January 2016, I had just finished my grad school applications. But I ultimately decided not to go because I was going to put my all into living life and making shit. And that’s what I did for a little while. But at the climax — and it really was the climax — I went to Fire Island to make this movie about erotic mermaids, and to go into the ocean for the first dive of the summer.

I remember being so fucking happy. Being like, This is it. I’m gonna make shit happen. Laughing, and running through the waves. Then the next thing I knew, my arms were floating in front of my face. I thought I had broken my arms. But that would have been too nice. Instead I broke my fuckin’ neck. And I would have drowned. It’s really only in that moment when you’re about to die that you realize whether you’re someone who wants to live or someone who wants to just throw it all out. And I realized I wanted to fucking live. I tried so hard to flip my body over. That’s when I knew things were really bad. I thought, The only way for me to not die right now is to flip my body over so that I can float. But because my entire body was paralyzed, I was unable to do that. So I was just writhing about in the ocean, drinking salt water. And all of a sudden these arms just pulled me out. It was a totally surreal moment. Cliche, out of a movie. My hero, Emiliano.

So I’m dragged out of the water and plopped onto the shore. Both Emiliano and Ludwig tried to get me away from the water. They didn’t want me to drown by the tide coming in, which was nice of them. But they couldn’t take me very far because the moment Emiliano picked me up I started screaming, “No, my neck.” Then I knew it was my neck that had broken. So I laid there in wait for the ambulance to come, staring up at the sky. It was such a beautiful day. I’ve never seen anything so fucking beautiful or so surreal. I don’t know why it makes me feel like a dork, but I was lying there and I was in pain, and I couldn’t move, and I knew that I was fucked beyond belief. And I was like, Hell, I gotta stay on this planet, this place is cool as shit! And then I started my mantra, liberation is unattainable without suffering, while I was on the sand, which sounds crazy. Then I was lifted away into an ambulance that took me to a helicopter, that took me to the hospital.

The last thing I remember before going into surgery is my feminist rant about how diva cups were not only good for the environment and for your pocket, they were also good for empowering women. I had my diva cup in because I had my period at the time of the accident. As I was going into surgery I was telling them what was in my system and everything. I told them I had my period, but they didn’t understand because I wasn’t bleeding and I didn’t have a tampon in. So I was like, “I have a diva cup, OK?” And they were like, “What the hell is that?” And then all of a sudden I felt a nurse pull it out and all these doctors were muttering to themselves like, “What is with this girl?” And I was like, “Diva cups are absolutely amazing, they have changed the entire world, or they will. OK?” And then I blacked out.

I was scared shitless, but I think I’m more scared now. It’s really scary not being in control of your body. When I was on the beach my instinct was to just live, but now I wanna live. I’m also faced with this obstacle, but I’m becoming familiar with it, and that has become my new norm. Or, it’s trying to enter my life as such — the fact that my life has changed so drastically, so quickly. All I do now is go to a gym and workout, and try to walk.

Do you have the same instinct to hold onto life now that you did when you were in the water staring at your arms?

I gotta take back what’s mine! I miss a lot of things. I’ve been sober for five and a half months now. I still have the stoner mentality. My dad’s been smoking pot. I’m like, “Where is the sense of solidarity in this family?” Everyone’s drinking and smoking pot. And I used to smoke cigarettes, and I don’t care who knows it! I don’t think I can smoke cigarettes ever again — that depresses me.

It’s really weird looking at people. Like, even looking at you. Not just what I miss, but what I see now. I see you so clearly, and I feel so far away from other bodies, able bodies. Just the simplest of movements — something like twirling your hair, or rubbing your fingers together, like a tic. I no longer have that. My tic is just shifting my weight back and forth, going, Oh, dear god, help me!

Life is so easy, and people don’t even know it. I want to shout it at the top of rooftops. “Live your life, please!” ‘Cause I just woke up like this, I remember what happened and all that, but I really woke up and just felt like I was in a different reality.

It’s so beautiful, what humans have. And people never think twice about it, about this vessel we have. You should treat it as such. Like, you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, because your body is what gets you around. I used to think of it as my container, that it constricted me. The mind wanted to go farther than the body could take me. But now, my body is not in tune with my self, and I have never felt so stuck. But then again, my body is not my self, right? It’s a terrible fucked up vortex.

Everything that I explored in my work is now amplified by this accident. For me, what’s most heartbreaking is that I used my body in my work. It’s like some big fucking ironic joke, like a performance piece gone too far — a really fucked up performance piece. All I wanna do is use my hands. I wanna dig in some dirt and get scared of worms. The left hand is kind of usable but still fucked up. I accept it, for the time being. My dominant side is now my left side, and I keep calling my left hand my right hand. Very confusing.

“Life is so easy, and people don’t even know it. I want to shout it at the top of rooftops. ‘Live your life, please!’”

Why is your left side happier than your right side?

Think of it this way: the spinal cord sends out signals to each side of your body. So we’re basically split in half, like in Plato’s story of creation. I love that story, and that’s never felt more appropriate. We really are split in half, and just one side was more damaged than the other. The right side has different sensation, as well as a different recovery plan. So that sucks. But it’s weird, you know, my mind is here, completely fine. I just feel like I was abducted.

All I wanna do is make art. I think it’s a good thing: you question what you wanna do with your life all the time. I never did really question it, it seemed like that was the only thing I was good at or knew how to do. But now I can’t do that. Sure, I can direct photographs and that feels real, like I’m making something, but it’s not the same. I don’t wanna take the picture, it’s not about that at all. I want to make [fabric] noodles. I wanna spray-paint, use cardboard, make sculptures, weld, whatever. I don’t want to be limited.

Now, I'm actually anchored to my body, and unable to make the things I desire to make. I'm building my physical endurance to rebuild my body, and then on top of that I have to endure this entire mind/body-altering experience. I only just recently started regaining the sensation of touch, of texture, in my left hand only. Before, everything kind of felt like sandpaper. Now, I can start to tell the difference between something that's soft, rough, etc. That's what I've lived for — texture. I've lived for building things, really. I just want to throw it in the bag sometimes, fuck it. But then I'm like, That sounds pretty boring. I just gotta keep my eyes on the prize, whatever the fucking prize is.

Not like you would ever give up. You’re too stubborn.

I’m too stubborn. Plus, if you suffer or endure a certain amount, then you're like, Well, I’m not gonna stop now, what would be the point of that? I want my candy at the end.

You want to prove you can do it.

Even when people tell me that it's not possible.

"You don't know me, sorry."

I couldn’t talk for the first two weeks in the ICU because I had a breathing tube down my throat. There are silent retreats, and when it's a chosen endurance-based task, it could be enlightening. But I'm not sure how enlightening it was to be silent for those two weeks, or not being able to drink water for almost three. It was really fucked up. I never thought that could happen, but that's what's crazy, and that's what I want people to recognize: we've got it so good.

The only thing that grounded me in my dreams and in reality while I was in the hospital was this clock that sat above my bed, but it was crooked. I don't like things that are crooked. I'll always be haunted by clocks now. You know what the first thing I finally said was? "Somebody fix that fucking clock."

You said you document so you can identify yourself in your body, but when you were doing that in the hospital, it was so you could identify reality.

I started photographing in the hospital because I didn't want to look in the mirror. So I said, "Take a picture of me, and I'll look at it one day." I was using the camera as a mirror. I felt like if I didn't look in the mirror, then I was just this floating thing in space — suffering intensely, but it didn't matter as long as it wasn't real. It felt important to take those pictures.

The photos are so personal. They are yours, even though you didn't take most of them with your actual hand.

The more that I directed, the more they felt like my own. It's nice having all these different people help me, I like that they were involved. The self portraits are vulnerable, but I hope they show power and strength. But that's not just me — that’s in everyone.

I didn't ask for this. Anyone who's put in a situation like this is going to fight for their life, not just for the act of breathing, but for their life, whatever that means to them, whatever they've constructed in their life as meaningful. That's what you want. That's what makes the bigger world special.